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Schools have multiple purposes, some universally agreed upon, many contested. Judging from Nick Clegg’s re-announcement about the Pupil Premium on Monday, schools have one new purpose: to demonstrate the impact of the Liberal Democrats on Coalition policy.

As Conor Ryan’s blog explains in detail, the Pupil Premium is essentially a small addition to a school funding system which already has significant weighting for disadvantage and other factors. Its existence may actually stall progress towards more radical changes to school funding – ones which would differentiate more for social class, but less for age. Given what we know about the importance of the early years, it is difficult to justify why secondary pupils have so much more money spent on them than primary children. Such  changes would create genuine losers, mainly sharp-elbowed secondary schools in more affluent constituencies.

But let’s welcome the Pupil Premium’s existence, and its totemic as well as cash value, and ask ourselves two further questions. What should schools do with this additional funding? And how should they account for this spend?

Schools which are successfully closing the achievement gap – and the Education Endowment Foundation has found a significant number of them - are likely to be taking a whole-school and whole-budget approach. Yes, within their strategies will be a number of smaller initiatives, but at their foundations lie high quality teaching for all, and forensically targeted teaching interventions for a few, all underpinned by excellent pastoral and extra-curricular support. Any school that sees the pupil premium as the answer to their achievement gap woes (and there won’t be many of them) probably won’t succeed.

There is thus no clear rationale for the DfE requirement for schools to account separately for their Pupil Premium spend. And unless schools use this funding to develop a highly controlled, bounded intervention, it is unlikely that we will ever know the specific impact of this injection of funding. Correlation will be difficult, causation almost impossible.

There are three orthodoxies around the use of this funding which need challenging:

First, unlike yesterday’s announcement about personalised SEN budgets, there is an overwhelming consensus that it should be schools themselves, rather than individual pupils or parents, who should determine how the Pupil Premium should be spent. This might well be justified, but could a few schools create a model where where pupils, parents and school co-commissioned additional support, learning from the disaster of Individual Learning Accounts and the quiet success of Pupil Learning Credits.

Second, schools are not being encouraged to think more expansively about how the Premium could lever additional match funding from other sources. If funding was pooled with other schools or other funding streams that are dealing with a similar client group it could be spent collaboratively to achieve far more, and develop more robust evaluation methodologies, adopting EEF methodology. Again, some schools may be taking this approach, but competitive and accounting pressures mean that collaborative use of this funding is unlikely to be the norm.

Third, Clegg has placed the Pupil Premium at the centre of his strategy to increase social mobility. Anna Vignoles’ blog demonstrates the tenuous link between such spending initiatives and social mobility, and the RSA’s Louise Thomas has usefully questioned many assumptions in this debate. The truth is that, despite the distracting headline figures around Oxbridge entrance, it is too early to know the full impact of the previous government’s policies on social mobility. If social mobility has stalled in the last twenty years, it will be largely as a result of what happened in the twenty years before that. The pupil premium may help deliver outcomes which provide stronger foundations for social mobility to increase, but it would be a mistake to promise any more from this short term initiative.

Later this week the RSA publishes its Plan C for economic recovery: ‘coping with long term slow growth’. My own plan C for the pupil premium (which would need no re-announcement) consists of three Cs: co-commissioning, collaboration, and coping with premature evaluations from a government in a hurry to prove its impact.


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